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Revisiting the gospel truth

As a metaphor for the process of seeking out the truth, the idea of "separating the wheat from the chaff" goes back at least as far as the Gospel of Matthew. Over the past couple of days, readers have stirred up their share of wheat and chaff in response to my report on the apocryphal tales surrounding the biblical accounts of Jesus' life.

Most of those tales - highlighted in the National Geographic documentary "Secret Lives of Jesus" - are definitely chaff, created in the first four centuries of the Christian era. As scriptural scholar Ben Witherington told me, they're the ancient equivalent of Harlequin romances, or you might compare them to the popular "Left Behind" series of novels: that is, riffs on Christian scripture that flesh out the basics with plenty of fiction.

So are such also-ran gospels a fit subject for religious study - or scientific study, for that matter? Read on for a sampling of opinions from believers and skeptics:

Bill: "Are you purposefully trying to provoke Christians? Your statements in this piece are inflammatory and, in my opinion, flat-out wrong. For instance:

"'A lot of these ancient stories have come to be considered heretical.'

"This implies that it took a long time for these errant works to be considered aberrant, when the earliest church fathers didn’t at all consider them correct.

"'...illustrates that the gospel story has been added to, fine-tuned and pruned through the centuries.'

"Again, this is flat-out wrong. The earliest scrap of the Gospel of John dates from about 125 A.D., a papyrus fragment from Egypt with five verses on it. You are merely restating the standard Christian-bashing position that our text is unreliable. And that just isn’t so. It’s one of the most reliable texts in all of history, based on the amount of evidence and copies available. I suggest you read 'The Case for Christ' by Lee Strobel. Claiming that the Gospel story underwent any significant change since about 100 A.D., let alone 'for centuries,' without any countering viewpoint, is reprehensible.

"At this point in your story, your bias and inflammatory language stopped me from reading any further. True, Fox News is probably biased, but MSNBC shouldn’t be one to cast stones. Come on, at least once in a while why not give the opinion of a knowledgeable, articulate expert who holds the opposing view."

Ned Goldreyer: "With all due respect, what are the gospels doing as a topic in a science column?  Granted, this is the time of year when journalists either pander to the fairy-tale crowd or face losing eyeballs, but even so, couldn't you have chosen something even slightly closer to what we generally regard as scientific?  I love your clarification of the three kings as 'actually, astrologers.'  Actually, they are characters in piece of fiction and quite probably did not exist at all.  Or did they?  That would be a scientific question.  Hypothesis - The three kings did not exist.  Prove or disprove.  What exactly is your scientific training?  It is not mentioned in your profile.  I would bet good money that you have no scientific credentials at all.  Although I feel fully justified in asking you issue a public apology for this misuse of your position, at the very least, I would appreciate a response defending your reasons for writing on this subject."

I told Ned in an e-mail that I've chatted over the years with a fair number of scriptural scholars - admittedly, on hot-button topics such as the Gospel of Judas and the rehabilitation of Mary Magdalene - and that we've historically put these stories in the Science section (along with stories about the founding of Rome, and so on). The intersection of textual and archaeological studies with popular culture is part of our bread and butter here, whether we're talking about the Bible or Newton. I also said I make no claim to being a trained scientist - just a trained journalist (whatever that means).

My use of the word "actually" is just meant to say that Matthew was actually referring to astrologers rather than kings in Matthew 2:1. Yet another reader focused upon that reference to the Three Kings in his comment:

L. Mark Thomasson: "The Bible does not mention how many 'Kings' or 'Wise Men from the East' there were, simply that the gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh. Some assume that there were three Kings because of the three gifts - not likely.  Another common misconception is that an 'eye for an eye' justifies retribution, but is actually meant to limit the punishment imposed.  Many other misconceptions abound - but God said it best: 'For a lack of knowledge (ignorance) my people perish.' We are responsible to seek God out and study his Word."

Terry Brandli: "With all this talk about the season, and historical Jesus, too bad at least one of these shows doesn't explain the facts that Jesus Christ wasn't born on December 25th. And that the most accurate date is April 19.  The early Christian church was more worried about gaining members then about being truthful. They picked a prominent pagan Roman holiday as the day to celebrate the birth of Christ, hoping that would help entice more people into their church. Another thing I think that is bad about the way the Christmas holiday is celebrated is the fairy tale about Santa Claus.  To tie the birth of mankind's savior with a big commercial lie like Santa Claus and teach it to every little kid in the country, is not a good way to teach the message of Jesus Christ and the Bible. Evidently, the commercial interests and organized religion can't handle the truth."

Greg Charles: "Every few years, people like to drag out these so-called new truths about the Bible. The fact is they aren't new and there are few facts to be found in them. There were lots of weird people back then, like there is today, who like to twist the scriptures to make them conform to what they want to believe. That is why these teachings were rejected at the Council of Trent. They are not true. A true follower of Jesus not only believes what is written, but obeys it. When we do what the Bible says, great things happen. I have seen lots of phony things, but I have also seen the true power of God. I have seen and experienced many miracles, healings, casting out of demons, etc. Some of the things I've seen are medically documented. I bring this up because in the book of Mark it says that these signs will follow those that believe. They will lay hands on the sick and they will recover, they will cast out demons, etc. Jesus meant what he said."

Matthew: "Have you ever read Irenaeus' 'Against the Heresies'? I wish you would before you make assertions of this nature:

"'Did we say four Gospels? Actually, in the early centuries of the Christian church, there were quite a few more than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.'

"Yes, there were other, heretical gospels that circulated, but they were written by Gnostics, not eyewitnesses and associates of the apostles.  Please read this book. If you would like more information you can contact Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana."

Reading Irenaeus is tough sledding, but scholars have used such critiques to date the ancient apocryphal works. For example, Irenaeus' scornful reference to the Gospel of Judas in "Against the Heresies," which dates to about A.D. 180, has been cited as evidence that the controversial Gnostic work is at least that old.

Even the evangelist Luke says that "many" people drew up accounts of New Testament events, based on information "handed down to us." That would imply there were plenty of secondhand stories floating around even in Luke's day.

Here's a little equal time for the Gnostics:

Kathleen Mary Hensley: "To base my spirituality and religion on a book and/or a church solely is not something I can choose to do; while a lay person scientifically and religiously, I have thought deeply about the nature of the universe and have come to conclusions about the nature of reality due to reason, science, intuition, religion and spiritual experiences. For me, the universe is a vast puzzle wherein both spiritual consciousness and physical matter/energy co-exist. We do not yet have or see all the pieces nor understand all the connections, but time will tell - and someday we will understand our nature, the nature of the universe (cosmos) and God's nature (which is bound to be far more surprising than any of us can now imagine!).  Someday, the entire puzzle will fit together and make a whole picture - this puzzle is our very lives, our meaning and we must fill in all the blank spaces between matter, energy and spirit to understand who we truly are, what our souls are and what God is. This will take centuries to happen. We are yet children in grade school who think ourselves adults.

"As a Gnostic Christian, not only in philosophy but in experience, I do not believe it is the historical Jesus that matters to me, for the physical universe does not matter, it is an illusion, a matrix of energy and matter that is both interesting and distracting - and very, very temporary. It is the spiritual reality of Jesus fascinates me ... does he still exist, can he influence me now? what is his nature ? I found he does exist, he does influence and his nature is sublime and divine.

"It is the spiritual realms that I find fascinating, and it is the experience of his presence, mystically, that proves his love and mercy for me - He is in all things, my friend and companion on the road. This experience I have had time and again.

"You, as a scientist, will say there is no such thing as mysticism or mystical experience - but are you sure ? do you know all the laws of the universe and consciousness, do you know how to weigh the spirit of a woman and measure the depths of my soul? Can you say with certainty that there is no spirit, no consciousness outside of the mind?  It is foolishness to think you do understand everything that is and can be ! We are a evolving species, evolving physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually towards what end we do not know. No one person has all the facts, all the possibilities, all the truth.  It is not what we know in the 21st century that amazes me, it is what we do not know and what we can not yet even imagine that fascinates me. ..." 

Even Pontius Pilate asked the question, "What is truth?" The gospel truth was brought up by several of the correspondents:

Leroy: "It's always interesting to hear rationalizations and explanations from those whose futures would be better served were there no Jesus the Christ.  They simply can't afford for the true Gospel to be what it actually is - true. For, if it is true, then their fiery disposition is a certainty and not a myth.  Somehow, those odds just don't add up to common sense - do they?"

Harold Thomas: "I read your article entitled 'How the Gospel Story Grew in the Telling.' If I understand it correctly, it expresses what most of the liberal biblical scholars have said for years in reference to Christ and the origin of the Bible itself. That 'drum' has been beaten long and loud for many many years. But it reflects only one view of the issues. Why? Could it be that the alternative view places those that hold the liberal position squarely in the camp of infidels, agnostics and atheists - all of whom never believed one iota of the Bible for even one split second and all of whom never wanted to believe that there ever was a literal historical character called Christ in the first place? Many people have believed that if you repeat a lie long enough and with enough fervor it will come to be accepted as the truth by the masses of the human race. So the liberals shout the idea that the gospel story 'grew' (i.e., developed over many years) as the story was repeated from generation to generation.

"But history reveals that the gospel records that the early church accepted as 'inspired' and 'historically accurate' were all written within less than 100 years of the time the events they depict and describe actually took place. The authors of the four gospel narratives were known and recognized by the early church that received their writings. The Apostle John, speaking for himself and for the other apostles and inspired writers, says in reference to Christ and what had been written about Him this: 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.'

"A significant number of the members of the church were 'eyewitnesses' along with the authors of the gospel narratives, and doubtless would have raised serious questions about any material in those narratives that might have been less than accurate accounts of the facts. In addition to this there were many nonbelievers alive who witnessed a significant amount of what the gospel narratives contained. Their writings support the accuracy of the biblical text and provide independant verification of the gospel narratives' historical reliablity.

"All in all, I would suggest that before you take it upon yourself to tell your readers 'How the Gospel Story Grew in the Telling' that you devote a little time and a little research in the area of biblical inspiration as well as works that deal with how we got the Bible and the current state of the biblical text. I would be willing to recommend a few works dealing with these issues by recognized competent conservative scholars. But even if you did consult these, I would still not feel very comfortable about a 'science editor' commenting on issues clearly outside his field of study."

At the end of all this winnowing, I was desperate for some redemption - and thankfully, a longtime Cosmic Log correspondent provided some welcome words:

Dennis McClain-Furmanski: "I've been a fan of Jesus history for most if my life. In fact I turned down a scholarship to the Methodist seminary at Valporaiso to follow a path that eventually led to becoming a scientist. It is very difficult to present the viewpoints of both belief and history without either attempting to reconcile them, or risk saying something that one side or the other finds insulting. Your article accomplishes this superbly. I can hardly recall ever seeing such a masterful presentation of even-handedness on this topic, and certainly never in the 'popular' media. More than ever, I applaud your work."

Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below, or by joining in the discussion in our online forum on the history behind religion.